How students measure great teaching

Lately when it comes to education, the country has been focused on the goal of measuring good teaching–and I think most people would agree that it’s not an easy thing to do.  Some (such as Nancy Flanagan of Teacher in a Strange Land) have noted that teachers have been mostly left out of the process, though we are known to play the single most important role in a child’s education.  There is another group of key players that has had even less voice in how we measure good teaching: the students.

My virtual colleague from the Teacher Leaders Network and blogger at the DailyKos, Kenneth Bernstein, brought this AOL News article by Kelly Middleton to my attention.  There, students were surveyed about what makes a great teacher.  Their responses (copied below directly from the article) are quite interesting:

Know us personally, our interests and strengths

Let us know who they are as individuals

Smile at us

Encourage us to participate in school activities

Spend time beyond class time to help us be successful in their class

Give us descriptive feedback on assignments

Tell us why

Share how what we learn is connected to real life

Apologize when they make mistakes

Give meaningful work

Are energetic, enthusiastic and enjoy their job

As I prepare for a new school year, this list is a welcome reminder to me of what matters most to many students.  As Ken pointed out, students did not cite raising their test scores as a major factor in a teacher’s quality.  That in itself is no surprise to me, nor does it necessarily discount the value of test scores in measuring student learning… however, if we only look at test scores, it seems we are discounting the students’ experience.

Much of what the students listed would go under the category of building positive student-teacher relationships.  However, it seems there is little movement to encourage teachers to build better relationships with our students.  On a very qualitative level–though I wonder if we could get some numerical, survey-based data on this–I feel that the focus on data and test preparation has created a new kind of distance between today’s teachers and students.

Educators in New York regularly refer to specific students as numbers: “She’s a 1; he’s a high 2…” etc.   And as I spend more time looking at student work for data on what percentage of the class has mastered standard X and deciding how to respond, I have less time to give meaningful qualitative feedback on student work, which is something students reported to be valuable in the above list.

The nature of high stakes testing and all of its consequences makes working in a high need school (and maybe other types of schools, though I’m not sure) much more stressful than it was when I started teaching 6 years ago.  Are we smiling less?  That might be worth studying as well.

Extra-curriculuar activities are being cut in city schools and nationwide in place of more math and ELA instruction, so there are fewer activities to encourage students to participate in.   Teachers are often discouraged from spending time on meaningful work that might not apply directly to standards measured on state tests. Remember, tests only measure what can efficiently be standardized.  That leaves out a a great many areas of meaningful academic work (writing fiction and writing poetry, in my discipline, for example).

Students value a teacher who tells them why.  My guess is that the answer, “Because it’s on the test,” has become much more common and will continue to do so as long as test scores are the go-to measure for teaching and learning.  This is not to say that tests do not provide valuable data for us about student learning.  I just think that, for lack of a better way to measure good teaching, the country is going too far in the use of test scores.

As I look at what the students say makes a great teacher, I worry we may be we may be discouraging the development of such warm and thoughtful teachers.  It seems like so much energy is going to distract us from these things: smiling, words of encouragement…there is no guidance in that direction from those policies which seek to guide us teachers.  

 We also must not forget that we have a staggering national high school dropout rate (close to 50%).  My friend who teaches in Oakland at a second chance school for high school students who’ve already dropped out and want to come back did some research on her students’ experiences that led to their dropping out.  Overwhelmingly they had felt all alone in their education, lacking a strong relationship with any adult at school.  Ability and time to form relationships with students needs to be given some formal value.  If we constantly measure learning outside of any real context, we are really going astray of what our students need, which is real connection–both to academic content and to their teachers. 

[image credit: http://www.daisakuikeda.org/main/educator/edu/edu-04.html  This website is very interesting, about a model of education called Soka, which is based on positive relationship between teacher and student.]